The History and Origins of the Olympic Games



The history and origins of the Olympic Games take us back into the past of Ancient Greece and the legends of the heroic athletes visiting the city of Olympia every four years to take part in one of the most important and grandiose athletic competitions of the ancient world next to the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Held in honor of the father of the ancient Greek gods, Zeus, the Ancient Olympics were first recorded in 776 BC and were celebrated for more than 1,000 years, until the Emperor of Byzantium Theodosius I suppressed the Games in favor of the new Christian religion that would become the official state religion.

In comparison to the modern Games, the Olympics in ancient Greece were both a religious celebration and an athletic panhellenic meeting, which featured artistic competitions (sculptors and poets would congregate at each olympiad to display their works of art to would-be patrons) and fewer athletic events than today. The only competition held during the ancient times was, according to the Greek traveller Pausanias who wrote in 175 AD., the stadion race, a race of about 190 metres (189m), measured after the feet of Hercules.

Gradually, in 724 BC the 2-stade race (384 m.) was introduced, and four years later a long-distance run which ranged from 7 to 24 stades (1,344 m. to 4,608 m.). The fourth type of race involved runners wearing full amor, which was a 2-4 stade race (384 m. to 768 m.), used to build up speed and stamina for military purposes. In 708 BC, the pentathlon and wrestling were also included in the Games. Boxing was added to the Games in 688 BC, while the tethrippon (a race carriage with four horses) was introduced in 680 BC. Some 32 years later horse racing and the pancration also became parts of the Olympics. Over time, more and more sports were added to the Olympics’ list, while their duration expanded from one to five days.

The Games were always held at Olympia rather than alternating at different locations, while only free men who spoke the ancient Greek language were allowed to compete. However, there is one particularly well known case of a woman called Kallipatira, who disobeyed the strict rules and was the first woman ever to set foot in the Olympic Stadium. Being the mother of a competing athlete, Kallipatira wanted to admire her son’s performance, and therefore, dressed up as a man to be able to enter the Stadium. Her admiration finally betrayed her gender but she was not punished by the Hellanodikes because of her family’s tradition in winning the Olympics.

The prizes for the victors were wreaths of laurel leaves instead of money, and city walls would be demolished for them to enter. Their names were praised and their deeds were heralded and chronicled so that future generations could appreciate their accomplishments.

Homer’s epics provide the earliest and greatest description of athletic competitions in Western literature, while the earliest myths regarding the origin of the Games are recounted by the Greek historian, Pausanias. According to him, the dactyl Herakles (not to be confused with the son of Zeus) and two of his brothers raced at Olympia. He crowned the victor with a laurel wreath, which explains the traditional prize given to Olympic champions.The other Olympian gods (named after their permanent residence on Mount Olympus), would also engage in wrestling, jumping and running contests. Another myth, this one occurring after the aforementioned myth, is attributed to Pindar. He claims the festival at Olympia involved Pelops, king of Olympia and eponymous hero of  Peloponnesus, and Herakles, the son of Zeus. The story goes that after completing his labors, Herakles established an athletic festival to honor his father. Pelops, using trickery, and the help of Poseidon, won a chariot race against a local king and claimed the king’s daughter, Hippodamia as his prize.

As far as their early history is concerned, the first Games began as an annual foot race of young women in competition for the position of priestess for the goddess Hera in Olympia, a sanctuary site for Greek deities. The Heraea Games, the first recorded competition for women in the Olympic Stadium, were held as early as the sixth century BC. By the time of the Classical Greek culture, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the games were restricted to male participants.

The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games, four separate games held at two- or four-year intervals, but arranged so that there was at least one set of games every year. The Olympic Games were the most important and more prestigious ritual in ancient times, followed by the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.

Besides boosting the athletic spirit, the Olympics provided a commons means of counting time in ancient Greece. The historian Ephorus, who lived in the fourth century BC, is believed to have established the use of Olympiads to count years and put an end to the confusion among cities-states when trying to determine dates.

The Greek tradition of athletic nudity was introduced in 720 BC, either by the Spartans or by the Megarian Orsippus, and this was adopted early in the Olympics as well. This is perhaps one of the reasons why women were not allowed to enter or watch the Games. The word “gymnasium” comes from the Greek root “gymnos” meaning nude; the literal meaning of “gymnasium” is “school for naked exercise”.


1 COMMENT

  1. Founders of the Modern
    Olympics

     

     

    Dear Sirs

     

    I must express my
    disappointment with the ongoing absurd claim that de Coubertin alone resuscitated the modern
    Olympics.

     

    This belittles and
    denies the pioneering thoughts of Alexander Soutsos, the personal and financial
    support of Epirotes Evangelos Zappas and George Averoff and the sporting
    leadership of the very first IOC President, Dimitrios Vikelas. Even IOC
    archives support what they achieved, but unless we Hellenes stand up, the truth
    will remain in those archives.

     

    Alexandros Soutsos’ Idea

     

    Alexandros Soutsos
    was a famous Hellenic poet. In 1833, the newspaper Helios published his poem, where he referred to the necessity for
    reviving the Olympic Games. The newspaper was published in Nafplio, the first
    capital of the new born Hellenic state, in the Peloponnese.

     

    Plato

    If our shadow could fly to your earth it would daringly shout to
    the Ministers of the Throne: Leave your petty politics and vain quarrels Recall
    the past splendour of Hellas. Tell me, where
    are your ancient centuries? Where are your Olympic Games? Your majestic
    celebrations and great theatres? Where are your sculptures and busts, where are
    your altars and temples?

    Every city, every wood and every temple was filled before with rows
    of silent marble statues. Foreign nations decorated your altars with offerings,
    gold jars from Gygas. Creators, silver plates and precious stones from Croesus.
    When the glorious Olympic festival opened, large crowds gathered to watch the
    games where athletes and kings came to compete, Ieron and Gelon and Philip and
    others. Before forty thousand bedazzled Hellenes, Herodotus presented in his
    elegant history their recent triumphs. Thucudides listened to the beautiful
    harmony of his prose and prepared to meet him in competition as a worthy rival.

    (G. Dolianitis, Vikelas,
    First I.O.C. President, International Olympic Academy, [S.Y.])

     

    Influenced by the ideas of that poem, the great philanthropist Evangelos Zappas proposed the revival
    of the Olympic Games.  Zappas was
    born in 1800 in a village at Epirus,
    Northern Hellas. In 1831 he emigrated to Bucharest, where he
    became one of the most important and wealthiest land-owners in the country.

     

    Influenced by the poem by Alexandros Soutsos, in which he claimed the
    need for reviving the Olympic Games, Zappas decided to propagate the idea and
    to personally finance the effort. After his agreement with the Hellenic
    Government, the Zappian Olympic Games were founded. Zappas financed the
    erection of a building for exhibits, as well as the excavation and restoration
    of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.

     

    Zappas died in 1865, leaving his immense fortune for the benefit of
    the modern Olympics with the purpose to be held every four years “in the
    manners of our ancestors”. De Coubertin was to use this money to
    achieve what Zappas had begun.

     

    According to his will, his body was buried in Romania, and his skull at the new Olympic
    building located in Zappeion, Athens.
    Visitors can still see the inscription at Zappeion: “Here lies the
    head”. De Coubertin copied
    the idea and had his heart buried at Mt Olympus with the inscription “Here lies
    the heart”, just as he copied many other ideas regarding the Olympics.

     

    As the renovation of the ancient Stadium was not yet completed,
    the Games of 1859 took place in Loudovicos’ Square (today’s Omonoia Square, in the center of Athens). All the official
    representatives – the Royal Family, Government MPs, Military and Public
    Authorities – and many thousands of people attended.

     

    As it was one of the
    first mass gatherings in the country, neither the people nor the police had any
    previous experience of keeping the necessary order for the event.

     

    The athletic
    competition had more a game-like than sportive character. As there were no
    athletes at that time, the Organising Committee accepted the participation of
    workers, porters, etc., who were attracted by the monetary prizes of the Games.
    According to the press of the time, many anecdotes took place during the Games:
    a policeman who was there keeping the order, left his post and participated in
    the races. Even a beggar, who pretended to be blind, participated in the races
    as well!

     

    While the press
    criticised the Games, the ideal of the athletic competition was generally
    accepted, and this was the beginning of the whole process of the Olympic Games.

     

    The Games of 1870’s
    took place in the restored Stadium. At that time the organization was much
    better:

     

    There were nine games:
    three classic ancient games, four ancient, but not classic games, and two
    modern. Prizes were both monetary and symbolical. There was a band playing an
    Olympic Hymn, specially composed for the occasion. The judges were professors
    of the University, and a herald announced the winners. The King awarded prizes
    to winners to the sound of the hymn.

     

    The 1870’s Games were
    an enormous success and the press dedicated triumphal articles both to the
    organization and to the accomplishment of the Games. More Games were to follow
    in years to come.

     

     

    Demetrios
    Vikelas
    was born in 1835 in Syros, and died in 1908 in Athens. He was a merchant in London, but since literature was his real
    love, he soon became a well-known writer.

     

    In
    1894, he took over the initiative of establishing the modern Olympic Games.
    After becoming a member of the Panhellenic Gymnastic Society in Athens, he represented the Society in the International
    Athletic Congress of 1894 held in Paris.
    There, he made the first speech suggesting that Athens should be the site of the First
    International Olympic Games to be held in 1896.

     

    “I
    claimed Hellas’ rights with regard to the
    re-establishment of a Hellenic institution. Indeed, as Victor Hugo put it, the
    whole civilized world has a common grandmother, but we [the Hellenes] have her
    as our mother. So we are in a way the uncles of the rest of the peoples. Here
    is our only advantage, if it is an advantage. Here is the source of my request
    that the restored Olympic Games be inaugurated on our Hellenic soil”.

     

    After
    the acceptance of the proposition, Athens
    became the site of the first institutionalised Olympic Games and Vikelas became the first president of the new-born International Olympic Committee.

     

    George
    Averoff,
    another Hellenic benefactor from Epirus as was Averoff, was a resident
    of Alexandria.
    He personally financed the erection of the Athens
    Polytechnic School,
    the Military Academy
    and the High School and the Girls Institution at Alexandria.

     

    When
    the Committee for the renovation of the Panathenian Stadium asked him to
    contribute, Averoff stated that he would undertake the renovation of the ancient
    Panathenian Stadium, at his own expense.

     

    Subsequently, George Averoff was greeted by all
    Hellenism as the principal establisher of the Olympic Games. In memory of
    his patriotism, his statue was erected in front of the Stadium on the eve of
    the beginning of the Games.

     

    So
    given all of the foregoing, available on the internet and confirmed via IOC
    Archives, how is it that the Hellenic nation has ever allowed Pierre de
    Coubertin to claim all of the credit for founding the modern Olympics. Even the
    Athens 2004 website erroneously gave him credit without any mention of Soutsos, Zappas, Vikelas and Averoff.

     

    Yet
    without these men there would have been no idea for reviving the Games, no
    motivation and impetus and certainly no money.

     

    It
    is time that the world recognised what the Hellenes did, over a century ago but
    which they too have now forgotten.

     

     

     

    Ange
    T Kenos (Olympic certified weightlifting coach)